For many, the month of October ushers in a compulsive need to binge watch horror films. Did you see the one about the spooky mirror that makes you go insane? Or the one about the doll from the other movie that probably comes to life and kills people? What I’m saying is…Most horror films are bad, and you can only re-watch the classics so many times. Instead, here is a list of films that are not traditionally classified as horror, but have insides so wretched they will chill your very marrow.
White God (2014)
Written and directed by Kornél Mundruczó.
White God begins in Budapest with a young teenage girl and her dog, Hagen. Everything seems fine in the beginning, but not great. The girl’s mother sends her to stay with her father. He used to be a professor but now he does quality control at the local slaughterhouse. It’s a little disturbing, but okay. Father doesn’t like dogs and neither do the local animal control, apparently. There’s a fine for mixed breeds. (It’s an allegory for racism.) Then father sends Hagen cruelly out into the world to fend for himself, and now we don’t know if we’re watching Homeward Bound or Cujo. One bad thing happens to Hagen on the streets, and then another, and then another, until we hardly notice that Hagen has stopped acting like a normal dog in favor of something much more calculating and monstrous.
White God isn’t not a horror. It would be more accurate to say that the film resists easy classification, so we are helpless to rely on conventions of any given genre to see us through. When Hagen organizes a revolt made up of hundreds of real dogs to take their revenge on an unjust world, it starts to look like our White God’s retribution.
In The Company of Men (1997) / The Shape of Things (2003)
Written and directed by Neil LaBute
Neil LaBute has given us so many mortifying glimpses into humanity’s sickest hearts, so how could I possibly choose just one? In the Company of Men features a couple of fellas who meet on an extended business trip, led by a charming sociopath named Chad (Aaron Eckhart). “Women are the worst!” These men conclude, so they pick a vulnerable one and devise an elaborate plot to hurt her. The real tragedy is when you start to believe that maybe Chad will have a change of heart and not go through with it. I saw this movie in high school when it was first realized, and it basically ruined my life. It was the first time I ever considered that a man could hurt me on purpose, and with a weapon far worse than a rope or a knife or a gun.
In The Shape of Things, a lonely museum guard (Paul Rudd) meets an art student (Rachel Weisz). She will make him fall in love, abandon his friends and even change his face. She’s a little like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, except she makes the suit out of human dreams and humiliation, and it’s all for school credit. You’ll find more hope in a haunted cave than in any given Neil LaBute movie.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay
Teenagers can die in all sorts of violent ways in slasher films, and we’re pretty fine with it. In real life though, the barrage of school shootings to befall us in rapid succession since Columbine have a way of making dead teenagers seem a little more tragic. Freddy Krueger’s victims are flits who had what was coming to them. On the nightly news, a dead teen is somebody’s son or daughter. The media wonders: Who is this mad shooter, and what is the matter with his parents? This is the subject of We Need to Talk About Kevin, adapted from the novel by Lionel Shriver. Tilda Swinton plays the mother of a kid who seems odd and cruel from the very beginning. Think The Omen, but worse. At least the devil can be cast out.
We need to talk about Kevin, but we don’t get around to it until it’s too late. Kevin grows into a teenager played by Ezra Miller, who will go on to kill many people in unexpected ways. That he left his mother alive to try to pick up the pieces in a community that despises her may have been Kevin’s cruelest act.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Directed by Spike Jonze. Written by Charlie Kaufman
As if a depressed puppeteer weren’t enough, this one finds a portal on the seventh-and-a-half floor of an office building that leads directly into the brain of real life actor John Malkovich. The film presents itself as a “comedy” or a “fantasy,” but whenever the very fabric of reality has been so compromised, it’s reasonable to be terrified. Craig Schwartz (John Cusack) meets Maxine (Catherine Keener) in an office with ceilings so low that workers have to shuffle around hunched over. It’s meant to play as comedy, but one can’t help but feel claustrophobic, and—let’s face it—an oppressing sense of dread. Never mind an axe—beware an unrequited love that drives you to hold your long-suffering wife at gunpoint.
When Malkovich finds his way into his own portal, it’s Malkoviches for miles. He says: “I have seen a world that no man should see. This portal is mine and must be sealed forever, for the love of God.” Craig Schwartz gets greedy and abuses the portal’s power, and he ends up in a fate worse than death. For those who haven’t seen it, I’ll simply say: What’s sixteen years in the worst kind of prison when the sentence is eternity without chance of parole? Nothing.
Written and directed by Gaspar Noé
This film is the reason phrases like “trigger warning” exist. Irréversible takes place on one terrible evening in Paris, and the scenes are presented in reverse order. Right out of the gate we witness a brutal murder, but only later do we realize who the killers are and what they’re mad about. If you aren’t familiar with the film’s most iconic, infamous scene, get ready: Their girl, played by Monica Belluci, gets brutally raped in a dark corridor, in real time, on a television set that may very well have belonged to your grandmother, in your own living room, in front of God and everyone. Just to hammer the point home, the score includes a sickening, barely audible frequency meant to give the listener symptoms of vertigo, dizziness and nausea. You feel terrible even before anyone gets raped.
I loathe this film. I never want to see it again, and I think that’s just the kind of visceral reaction Noé is going for. Irréversible makes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like a feel-good movie. No sensible person should see it at any time for any reason.